The last time architecture professor Eric Weber led a UNLV Solar Decathlon team was the first bite at the apple for the university. Finishing just seven points — out of 1,000 — behind the winning Austrian team immediately showed that UNLV was on even footing with the biggest, most prestigious universities in the country.
There were plenty of lessons learned during that and the subsequent Solar Decathlon, the U.S. Department of Energy competition that challenges colleges to construct buildings powered by renewable energy. Lessons in materials, in fundraising, in strategy. But one thing hasn’t changed, and that’s what led Weber back to his role as team faculty adviser for the first time since the 2013 entry.
“The climate change situation hasn't gotten any better,” he said. “One of the things I hate having to admit is that the building industry is one of the most wasteful industries in the country. As an architect and as an academic and a researcher, I find questions like that interesting. What do we do about that?”
Weber makes his return to the Decathlon to help guide 15 architecture students — and around 45 students from other disciplines including engineering, graphic design, marketing and more — through creating Desert Bloom, the 2020 Solar Decathlon entry, which is judged on 10 criteria.
This year's home won’t just try to unlock the Decathlon’s usual goals for energy efficiency and independence, but will also try to solve a host of problems endemic to those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. With two veterans and the spouse of a veteran in the group, the team settled early on a project that would focus on veterans’ needs. Weber himself is a Marine Corps vet, though he didn’t influence the team one way or the other on the matter.
Their goal makes for a delicate balancing act: How do you serve the needs of veterans and at the same time design a beautiful house that performs even better than previous homes in the Decathlon’s various technical categories?
“What you end up doing as a designer is you have to juggle a lot of information,” Weber said. “You have to start by asking the right questions. What you'll find is there are multiple things that become constraints. You take in as much information as possible. Each question will offer its own constraints, and you begin to overlap. As you look at these overlapping constraints, you begin to see the answers.”
Weber didn’t have to look far to start developing the right questions for the students to explore. His office is right next to Dak Kopec, who studies and teaches healthcare interior design; down the hall is Marisela Thompson, whose work centers on design that addresses aging and disabilities. Thompson also led the 2017-18 Sinatra Living Decathlon team that built a home that addressed aging in place.
Post-traumatic stress disorder and amputations are two of the biggest challenges for veterans, and Desert Bloom will aim accommodate those conditions through a series of small, detail-oriented touches. The latest research, for example, shows that it’s better for amputees to walk on their prostheses rather than rely on wheelchairs. To that end, counters will be designed with protrusions one could reach for to prevent a fall, giving those vets more confidence to walk on prosthetic legs.
Studies have also shown that cultivation, even just proximity to plants, helps to reduce stress in veterans who suffer from PTSD. So a garden wall in the center of the Desert Bloom house will give vets a bit of nature to walk past, feel, smell, and care for. Just as the house will be fine-tuned to the needs of veterans in innovative ways, Desert Bloom will be honed to meet a variety of energy needs. Its design builds on the advances of previous Decathlon houses.
The building will use eutectic salts, a material that sounds more science fiction than science. As fans draw in hot air from the outside and pass it over the salts, the material cools the air to 78 degrees, putting less strain on air conditioning.
Solar panels made of laminated glass will be used in the house’s entrance, filtering light for both practical and aesthetic effect. Light-colored roofing materials will reflect light to bifacial panels installed on a low slope on the roof. The panels won’t hinder sightlines, but will allow light to enter from underneath and collect solar energy on both sides.
“When you find your systems solve multiple problems, then you know you're close to the right solution,” Weber said.
Desert Bloom will be built at the Xtreme Manufacturing site in Henderson. Construction will start around the end of the fall semester, with the bulk of the construction in spring 2020. The home must be transported to Washington, D.C., to go on display by June 25, 2020. Xtreme Manufacturing built the units for Container Park, and Desert Bloom will employ some of the same methods used there. Owner Don Ahern also owns a trucking company, and has the logistic expertise to get the home to the nation’s capital.
Engineering testing on its systems will start as soon as this summer, but the challenge now is to finalize the design in a way that fully ties together the structural, physical, and thematic elements into a building.
“If you understand really well the nature of what you're trying to solve then it will make for better architecture,” Weber said. “That extends to the aesthetics, understanding how these complex systems work, responding to the user's needs. If you do all those things beautifully and the building functions beautifully, inherently that tends to drive it toward being a beautiful building.”